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Marty McFly's entire backstory explained

Marty McFly is the rambunctious hero of the Back to the Future franchise, which encompasses, movies, comics, an animated series, and even a few theme park rides. Over the course of three films, Marty travels back and forth through time with the help of his best friend, Dr. Emmett "Doc" Brown, changing the course of his own family history and improving his future. Because of all this jumping around in time, Marty's "backstory" — if you can even call it that — can get a little confusing. He's not on a linear journey — he's playing a cosmic game of hopscotch. 

This is entertaining as all get-out, but also pretty hard to keep track of. We're here to help with this breakdown of his entire story. For the purposes of this timeline, we're sticking to the events of the three movies, and won't be including the animated series or the comics. Much like superhero comics, the Back to the Future comics feature so many different timelines and reboots that keeping everything straight amounts to a fool's errand. We're starting at the "beginning," with movie number one: Back to the Future.

The McFly family

Marty McFly is a typical teenage boy. He plays guitar, and dreams of rock stardom. He has a devoted girlfriend named Jennifer Parker (Claudia Grace Wells), to whom he confesses his fears of ending up like his mediocre parents. While he often gets in trouble at school for being late and slacking off, he's not a bad kid — he's just restless. 

Marty and his family live in Hill Valley, California. Said family consists of his alcoholic mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson), his cowardly father George (Crispin Glover), his older brother Dave (Marc McClure), and his older sister Linda (Wendie Jo Sperber). No one in the family is terribly happy, Marty's mom and dad being particularly miserable in their middle age. His siblings aren't doing much better, and Marty's uncle is in jail. Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), George's supervisor at work, verbally and physically abuses George, turning him into his own personal errand boy. The whole McFly family is in a rut, having little ambition, few accomplishments, and weak connections to each other. No wonder Marty sought out the companionship of Doc Brown in the first place.

Doc and Marty

Dr. Emmett Brown is what one might call a mad scientist. An omnivorous scholar and genius inventor, "Doc" Brown manages to invent a time machine out of an old DeLorean car. Marty is his assistant and friend, often helping with his experiments. Since George McFly is kind of a sad sack, Doc has become a kind of father figure to Marty — albeit a very weird one.

Marty and Doc Brown's relationship might seem strange at first glance: What guitar-strumming teenage boy hangs out with a weirdo grandpa? But as Back to the Future co-creator Bob Gale has explained, "For years, Marty was told that Doc Brown was dangerous, a crackpot, a lunatic. So, being a red-blooded American teenage boy, age 13 or 14, he decided to find out just why this guy was so dangerous. Marty snuck into Doc's lab, and was fascinated by all the cool stuff that was there. When Doc found him there, he was delighted to find that Marty thought he was cool and accepted him for what he was. Both of them were the black sheep in their respective environments. Doc gave Marty a part-time job to help with experiments, tend to the lab, tend to the dog, etc. And that's the origin of their relationship." They might seem entirely different at first glance, but they're utterly in sync in all the ways that matter.

Back in time to 1955

The plot line of the first Back to the Future movie revolves around Marty's jump back to the year 1955. After Doc introduces Marty to the time machine, he explains that it's powered by plutonium ... which he stole from Libyan terrorists. When the terrorists come to collect in a blaze of gunfire, Marty accidentally travels back in time in his attempt to escape the assault. Deposited in 1955, Marty finds that year's version of Doc, whom we'll call Young Doc. The two hatch a plan to get Marty back to the future using the time machine and a bolt of lightning set to hit the famed Hill Valley clock tower later that week.

Young Doc insists that Marty stay out of sight lest he alter any future events, but it's already too late — Marty managed to alter his own future in a major way by interacting with his teenage father and Biff before encountering Young Doc. First, he got in a fight with the young version of Biff. Then, he inadvertently sabotaged his parents' own marriage when he followed George. Uh-oh.

Lorraine and George

How Lorraine and George fell in love is a bit of a weird story. See, George spends his free time up in a tree, peeping in girls' windows — an icky detail mercifully abandoned after his introduction. As Marty's parents tell it, George fell from said tree and got hit by a car driven by Lorraine's dad. Mr. Baines brought the kid inside to recover and Lorraine fell head over heels in love. At least, that's how the story went without Marty's intervention. In this timeline, Marty pushes George out of the way of the car, getting hit by it himself. Mr. Baines brings Marty inside, and, long story short, Marty's own teenage mother develops the hots for him.

So not only do Marty and Doc have to get Marty back to the future, they also have to find a way to get George and Lorraine back together, or else Marty will disappear from existence. They encounter multiple hurdles along the way, including resistance from Lorraine, reluctance from George, and interference from Biff. Thankfully, Marty and Doc succeed, and Marty heads back to the future. Not only is his family intact, Marty's involvement has made George much more confident, Lorraine healthier, and his siblings more successful.

Life in 2015

Marty's life looks pretty good, thanks to his trip back to 1955. But the first film ends with Doc appearing out of nowhere from the future. He says he's been to 2015, and while Marty and Jennifer are fine, their future children are not. Thus begins Back to the Future Part II: Marty and Jennifer, now played by Elizabeth Shue, hop in the DeLorean time machine, now capable of flight, and head to 2015.

The Hill Valley of 2015 looks much like the Hill Valley of 1985 ... only with hoverboards, 3D advertising, and a 1980s themed cafe. Marty runs into his own son, Marty Jr., and then runs into Griff, grandson of Biff, who is now an old man with a cane. Griff is just as abusive as his grandfather and tortures Marty Jr., pressuring him into joining a bank robbery that, as Doc discovers, goes wrong, landing Marty Jr. in jail. Marty manages to prevent the robbery and lands Griff in jail instead, but learns that his future isn't all he wanted it to be. After a car accident that occurs at some point after 1985, Marty apparently gives up his rock star dreams and gets a soul-sucking corporate job, which he's fired from during the events of 2015. Marty, Doc, and a passed-out Jennifer return to 1985 with renewed determination, with Doc swearing to destroy the time machine.

1985-A

When Doc and Marty return to 1985, they find much changed: Jennifer's home has bars on the windows, Marty's house is full of strangers, and Hill Valley has become overrun with gambling, drinking, and general debauchery. 

Doc and Marty soon learn that the old Biff from 2015 stole the DeLorean while they were distracted, and traveled back in time to give his younger self a Sports Almanac detailing sporting events of the next 50 years. Thus, Biff gambled his way into a massive fortune and some serious power. Old Biff's deed created this new, alternate 1985 timeline, in which Biff is a millionaire, George McFly is dead, and Lorraine, who has clearly undergone extensive plastic surgery, is married to Biff. Marty soon finds out that Biff had George murdered, forced Lorraine to marry him, committed Doc to an insane asylum, and basically used his wealth to take control of the whole town. His hideously garish casino, Biff Tannen's Pleasure Paradise, has replaced the town courthouse, and serves as the cherry on top of this truly icky sundae.

Back to 1955

Faced with fixing this mess, Doc and Marty have to head back to 1955 and stop Biff from giving his younger self the Almanac. They can't travel back to 2015 to do it, as Doc explains, because the 2015 of 1985-A's future won't be the same one from which they just returned. Heavy, right? So the duo heads to 1955, where Doc hasn't been since he lived it the first time. Marty, however, was there a mere day prior. 

Doc and Marty are faced with a delicate situation: They have to track down Biff and nab the almanac while trying not to get caught by their other selves. There are two Docs and two Martys in 1955 at this point, remember: Young Doc is helping Marty #1 set up the lightning rod on the clock tower while Marty #1 is busy getting his parents back together. Older Doc and Back to the Future Part II's main Marty (let's call him Marty #2) manage to relieve Biff of the Almanac and burn it, seemingly eliminating the 1985-A timeline in which Biff became a millionaire. Marty and Doc aren't in the clear yet, however — they still have to return to their own 1985 to see if their plan worked.

Lightning strikes twice

While Marty #2 and Old Doc try to get back to 1985, the storm that produced the lightning that sent Marty #1 back to the future in the first movie rages. This prevents Old Doc from flying the DeLorean properly. With Marty #2 still on the ground and Old Doc up in the air, the time machine gets hit by lightning, hurling it into the past and stranding Marty #2 in 1955.

Marty #2, dumbfounded and in shock, is approached moments later by a man from Western Union, bearing a 70-year-old letter addressed to Marty at that precise time and location. It's a letter from Doc! Having been hurled back to 1885, Doc lives as a blacksmith and has hidden the DeLorean away for Marty #2 to find and use in 1955 to get back to 1985. The second film ends with Marty #2 hilariously approaching the younger Doc, who has just sent Marty #1 back to 1985. "I just sent you back to the future!" Doc screams, shocked at the sight of Marty in front of him moments after seeing the DeLorean disappear. "I'm back from the future!" Marty shouts. Doc promptly faints in the street.

Back to the old west

When Marty and Young Doc dig the DeLorean out of the cave in which Old West Doc hid it, they inadvertently discover something about Doc's time in the past that makes Marty want to abandon their plan entirely. Doc's letter detailed that he was perfectly happy living in 1885, and that Marty shouldn't come to get him ... but Marty then stumbles upon Doc's gravestone in a nearby cemetery. It is dated six days after Doc wrote the letter, and reveals that Doc was murdered by Biff's ancestor, Buford "Mad Dog" Tannen.

Marty has no choice but to travel back to 1885 and rescue Doc. But after arriving in the past and reconnecting with the Doc who's been living there, the DeLorean's gas tank is damaged, leaving Marty and Doc without their usual means of transport. Facing the prospect of being trapped in 1885 forever, Doc and Marty hatch a plan to rig the DeLorean to the front of a 19th-century locomotive, in order to get the time machine up to the 88 MPH it needs to travel through time.

Beloved Clara

Before Marty went back to 1885 to save Doc, he read on Doc's tombstone that the stone was erected by Doc's "Beloved Clara." But when Marty arrives, Doc has no idea who Clara is. Just as Marty and Doc figure out that they need to use the train, a runaway buggy catches their attention. They rescue the passenger, the town's new schoolteacher, from falling into a ravine. She introduces herself as Clara Clayton, and the googly love eyes between her and Doc are immediate.

It is then that Doc and Marty realize they've altered history. As Marty explains, the ravine Clara almost fell into becomes known as the Clayton Ravine, named for a schoolteacher who "fell in 100 years ago." By rescuing her, Doc and Marty saved the life of a person who was supposed to die. Though Marty considers it no big deal that they don't name the ravine after her, the incident further intensifies Doc's desire to destroy "the infernal machine."

The McFly family legacy

While in 1885, Marty gets a chance to meet some of his ancestors. He stays for a while on the farm of Seamus and Maggie McFly, two Irish immigrants who have settled in the old west. He also meets their infant son, his great-grandfather William, mirroring the scene in which Marty meets his baby uncle Joey in 1955 in the first movie. Marty tells them his name is Clint Eastwood, so as not to cause any confusion.

Also present in 1885 is, of course, Buford "Mad Dog" Tannen, the ancestor of Biff and Griff Tannen, who is just as awful as you'd expect. A drunken thief who robs banks and murders people, Mad Dog sets his sights on killing Doc over a matter of $80, after Mad Dog's horse throws a shoe that Doc placed.

Marty and Biff's ancestors both reside in the Hill Valley of 1885, but we don't get to see any Brown relatives as Doc's family immigrated in 1908. Still, the idea that the Tannens have bullied the McFlys for 100 years is enough family history to be going on with — one Marty hopes to finally disrupt.

Back to the future, one last time

By agreeing to duel Mad Dog himself, Marty successfully saves Doc's life. The two also manage to get the DeLorean rigged up to the train, but an accident ensues in which Clara is almost killed. Things pull together at the last minute, and Marty manages to land in 1985, just in time for the DeLorean to be smashed by an oncoming train.

There, he finds Jennifer exactly where he left her on the porch of her now back-to-normal house. Hill Valley is as it should be, with nary a Tannen casino or a mysterious tombstone to be found. While driving Jennifer back to the spot where the time machine was destroyed, Marty manages to avoid the car accident that derails his life in the future, and Jennifer finds that Marty's pink slip, which she brought back with her from 2015, has been erased. Suddenly, the 19th-century locomotive flashes onto the tracks with Doc at the helm. He's turned the train into a time machine, and travels through time with Clara, now his wife, and their two boys, Jules and Verne. As Doc explains before they fly off again, Marty and Jennifer's legacy and history aren't written yet. They still have control over their lives, despite what they've seen and heard in the future and the past. "Your future is whatever you make it," he says, "so make it a good one."

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